How a bee sees: tiny bumps on flower petals give them their intense colour — and help them survive

Scarlett Howard, Author provided

Adrian Dyer, RMIT University and Jair Garcia, RMIT UniversityThe intense colours of flowers have inspired us for centuries. They are celebrated through poems and songs praising the red of roses and blue of violets, and have inspired iconic pieces of art such as Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers.

Vase with Three Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gough
Vase with Three Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh.

But flowers did not evolve their colour for our pleasure. They did so to attract pollinators. Therefore, to understand why flowers produce such vibrant colours, we have to consider how pollinators such as bees perceive colour.

When observed under a powerful microscope, most flower petals show a textured surface made up of crests or “bumps”. Our research, published in the Journal of Pollination Ecology, shows that these structures have frequently evolved to interact with light, to enhance the colour produced by the pigments under the textured surface.

A flower of Tibouchina urvilleana observed under a powerful scanning electron microscope shows a typical bumpy petal surface (left). In comparison, the opposite (abaxial) petal side, rarely seen by an approaching pollinator, shows a less textured surface (right).
Author provided

Sunshiney daze

Bees such as honeybees and bumblebees can perceive flower colours that are invisible to us — such as those produced by reflected ultraviolet radiation.

Plants must invest in producing reliable and noticeable colours to stand out among other plant species. Flowers that do this have a better chance of being visited by bees and pollinating successfully.

However, one problem with flower colours is sunlight may directly reflect off a petal’s surface. This can potentially reduce the quality of the pigment colour, depending on the viewing angle.

You may have experienced this when looking at a smooth coloured surface on a sunny day, where the intensity of the colour is affected by the direction of light striking the surface. We can solve this problem by changing our viewing position, or by taking the object to a more suitable place. Bees, on the other hand, have to view flowers in the place they bloom.

Bumblebee on a smooth blue surface, where the colour is affected by light reflection.

We were interested in whether this visual problem also existed for bees, and if plants have evolved special tricks to help bees find them more easily.

Read more:
Our ‘bee-eye camera’ helps us support bees, grow food and protect the environment

How bees use flower surfaces

It has been known for some time that flowering plants most often have conical-shaped cell structures within the texture of their petal surfaces, and that flat petal surfaces are relatively rare. A single plant gene can manipulate whether a flower has conical-shaped cells within the surface of a petal — but the reason why this evolved has remained unclear.

Past research suggested the conical petal surface acted as a signal to attract pollinators. But experiments with bees have shown this isn’t the case. Other explanations relate to hydrophobicity (the ability to repel water). But again, experiments have revealed this can’t be the only reason.

We investigated how bumblebees use flower surfaces with or without conical petal shapes. Bees are a useful animal for research as they can be trained to collect a reward, and tested to see how they perceive their environment.

Bumblebees can also be housed and tested indoors, where it is easier to precisely mimic a complex flower environment as it might work in nature.

Flowers cater to a bee’s needs

Our colleague in Germany, Saskia Wilmsen, first measured the petal surfaces of a large number of plants and identified the most common conical surfaces.

She then selected some relatively smooth petal or leaf surfaces reflecting light from an artificial source as a comparison. Finally, blue casts were made from these samples, and subsequently displayed to free-flying bees.

In the experiment, conducted with bumblebees in Germany, a sugar solution reward could be collected by bees flying to any of the artificial flowers. They had to choose between flying either towards “sunlight” — which could result in light reflections affecting the flower’s coloration — or with the light source behind the bee.

The experiment found when light came from behind the bees, there was no preference for flower type. But for bees flying towards the light, there was a significant preference for choosing the flower with a more “bumpy” conical surface. This bumpy surface served to diffuse the incoming light, improving the colour signal of the flower.

The results indicate flowers most likely evolved bumpy surfaces to minimise light reflections, and maintain the colour saturation and intensity needed to entice pollinators. Humans are probably just lucky beneficiaries of this solution biology has evolved. We also get to see intense flower colours. And for that, we have pollinators to thank.

Read more:
Plants use advertising-like strategies to attract bees with colour and scent

The Conversation

Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University and Jair Garcia, Research fellow, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The sunlight that powers solar panels also damages them. ‘Gallium doping’ is providing a solution


Matthew Wright, UNSW; Brett Hallam, UNSW, and Bruno Vicari Stefani, UNSWSolar power is already the cheapest form of electricity generation, and its cost will continue to fall as more improvements emerge in the technology and its global production. Now, new research is exploring what could be another major turning point in solar cell manufacturing.

In Australia, more than two million rooftops have solar panels (the most per capita in the world). The main material used in panels is silicon. Silicon makes up most of an individual solar cell’s components required to convert sunlight into power. But some other elements are also required.

Research from our group at the University of New South Wales’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering shows that adding gallium to the cell’s silicon can lead to very stable solar panels which are much less susceptible to degrading over their lifetime.

This is the long-term goal for the next generation of solar panels: for them to produce more power over their lifespan, which means the electricity produced by the system will be cheaper in the long run.

As gallium is used more and more to achieve this, our findings provide robust data that could allow manufacturers to make decisions that will ultimately have a global impact.

The process of ‘doping’ solar cells

A solar cell converts sunlight into electricity by using the energy from sunlight to “break away” negative charges, or electrons, in the silicon. The electrons are then collected as electricity.

However, shining light on a plain piece of silicon doesn’t generate electricity, as the electrons that are released from the light do not all flow in the same direction. To make the electricity flow in one direction, we need to create an electric field.

Read more:
Curious Kids: how do solar panels work?

In silicon solar cells — the kind currently producing power for millions of Australian homes — this is done by adding different impurity atoms to the silicon, to create a region that has more negative charges than normal silicon (n-type silicon) and a region that has fewer negative charges (p-type silicon).

When we put the two parts of silicon together, we form what is called a “p-n junction”. This allows the solar cell to operate. And the adding of impurity atoms into silicon is called “doping”.

An unfortunate side effect of sunlight

The most commonly used atom to form the p-type part of the silicon, with less negative charge than plain silicon, is boron.

Boron is a great atom to use as it has the exact number of electrons needed for the task. It can also be distributed very uniformly through the silicon during the production of the high-purity crystals required for solar cells.

But in a cruel twist, shining light on boron-filled silicon can make the quality of the silicon degrade. This is often referred to as “light-induced degradation” and has been a hot topic in solar research over the past decade.

The reason for this degradation is relatively well understood: when we make the pure silicon material, we have to purposefully add some impurities such as boron to generate the electric field that drives the electricity. However, other unwanted atoms are also incorporated into the silicon as a result.

One of these atoms is oxygen, which is incorporated into the silicon from the crucible — the big hot pot in which the silicon is refined.

When light shines on silicon that contains both boron and oxygen, they bond together, causing a defect that can trap electricity and reduce the amount of power generated by the solar panel.

Unfortunately, this means the sunlight that powers solar panels also damages them over their lifetime. An element called gallium looks like it could be the solution to this problem.

A smarter approach

Boron isn’t the only element we can use to make p-type silicon. A quick perusal of the periodic table shows a whole column of elements that have one less negative charge than silicon.

Adding one of these atoms to silicon upsets the balance between the negative and positive charge, which is needed to make our electric field. Of these atoms, the most suitable is gallium.

Gallium is a very suitable element to make p-type silicon. In fact, multiple studies have shown it doesn’t bond together with oxygen to cause degradation. So, you may be wondering, why we haven’t been using gallium all along?

Well, the reason we have been stuck using boron instead of gallium over the past 20 years is that the process of doping silicon with gallium was locked under a patent. This prevented manufacturers using this approach.

Gallium-doped silicon heterojunction solar cell.
Robert Underwood/UNSW

But these patents finally expired in May 2020. Since then, the industry has rapidly shifted from boron to gallium to make p-type silicon.

In fact, at the start of 2021, leading photovoltaic manufacturer Hanwha Q Cells estimated about 80% of all solar panels manufactured in 2021 used gallium doping rather than boron — a massive transition in such a short time!

Does gallium really boost solar panel stability?

We investigated whether solar cells made with gallium-doped silicon really are more stable than solar cells made with boron-doped silicon.

To find out, we made solar cells using a “silicon heterojunction” design, which is the approach that has led to the highest efficiency silicon solar cells to date. This work was done in collaboration with Hevel Solar in Russia.

We measured the voltage of both boron-doped and gallium-doped solar cells during a light-soaking test for 300,000 seconds. The boron-doped solar cell underwent significant degradation due to the boron bonding with oxygen.

Meanwhile, the gallium-doped solar cell had a much higher voltage. Our result also demonstrated that p-type silicon made using gallium is very stable and could help unlock savings for this type of solar cell.

To think it might be possible for manufacturers to work at scale with gallium, producing solar cells that are both more stable and potentially cheaper, is a hugely exciting prospect.

The best part is our findings could have a direct impact on industry. And cheaper solar electricity for our homes means a brighter future for our planet, too.

Read more:
It might sound ‘batshit insane’ but Australia could soon export sunshine to Asia via a 3,800km cable

The Conversation

Matthew Wright, Postdoctoral Researcher in Photovoltaic Engineering, UNSW; Brett Hallam, Scientia and DECRA Fellow, UNSW, and Bruno Vicari Stefani, PhD Candidate, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You may have heard the ‘moon wobble’ will intensify coastal floods. Well, here’s what that means for Australia


Mark Gibbs, Australian Institute of Marine ScienceExtreme floods this month have been crippling cities worldwide. This week in China’s Henan province, a year’s worth of rain fell in just three days. Last week, catastrophic floods swept across western Germany and parts of Belgium. And at home, rain fell in Perth for 17 days straight, making it the city’s wettest July in 20 years.

But torrential rain isn’t the only cause of floods. Many coastal towns and cities in Australia would already be familiar with what are known as “nuisance” floods, which occur during some high tides.

A recent study from NASA and the University of Hawaii suggests even nuisance floods are set to get worse in the mid-2030s as the moon’s orbit begins another phase, combined with rising sea levels from climate change.

The study was conducted in the US. But what do its findings mean for the vast lengths of coastlines in Australia and the people who live there?

A triple whammy

We know average sea levels are rising from climate change, and we know small rises in average sea levels amplify flooding during storms. From the perspective of coastal communities, it’s not if a major flood will occur, it’s when the next one will arrive, and the next one after that.

But we know from historical and paleontological records of flooding events that in many, if not most, cases the coastal flooding we’ve directly experienced in our lifetimes are simply the entrée in terms of what will occur in future.

Flooding is especially severe when a storm coincides with a high tide. And this is where NASA and the University of Hawaii’s new research identified a further threat.

Researchers looked at the amplification phase of the natural 18.6-year cycle of the “wobble” in the moon’s orbit, first identified in 1728.

The orbit of the moon around the sun is not quite on a flat plane (planar); the actual orbit oscillates up and down a bit. Think of a spinning plate on a stick — the plate spins, but also wobbles up and down.

Read more:
Predators, prey and moonlight singing: how phases of the Moon affect native wildlife

When the moon is at particular parts of its wobbling orbit, it pulls on the water in the oceans a bit more. This means for some years during the 18.6-year cycle, some high tides are higher than they would have otherwise been.

This results in increases to daily tidal rises, and this, in turn, will exacerbate coastal flooding, whether it be nuisance flooding in vulnerable areas, or magnified flooding during a storm.

View of Earth from the Moon
The moon’s orbit isn’t on a flat plane. It oscillates up and down, like a plate would when it spins on a stick.

A major wobble amplification phase will occur in the mid-2030s, when climate change will make the problem become severe in some cases.

The triple whammy of the wobble in the moon’s orbit, ongoing upwards creep in sea levels from ocean warming, and more intense storms associated with climate change, will bring the impacts of sea-level rise earlier than previously expected — in many locations around the world. This includes in Australia.

So what will happen in Australia?

The locations in Australia where tides have the largest range, and will be most impacted by the wobble, aren’t close to the major population centres. Australia’s largest tides are close to Broad Sound, near Hay Point in central Queensland, and Derby in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

However, many Australian cities host suburbs that routinely flood during larger high tides. Near my home in Meanjin (Brisbane), the ocean regularly backs up through the storm water drainage system during large high tides. At times, even getting from the front door to the street can be challenging.

Derby, WA, has one of the biggest tidal ranges in Australia.

Some bayside suburbs in Melbourne are also already exposed to nuisance flooding. But a number of others that are not presently exposed may also become more vulnerable from the combined influence of the moon wobble and climate change — even when the weather is calm. High tide during this lunar phase, occurring during a major rainfall event, will result in even greater risk.

Read more:
High-tide flood risk is accelerating, putting coastal economies at risk

In high-income nations like Australia, sea-level rise means increasing unaffordability of insurance for coastal homes, followed by an inability to seek insurance cover at all and, ultimately, reductions in asset values for those unable or unwilling to adapt.

The prognosis for lower-income coastal communities that aren’t able to adapt to sea-level rise is clear: increasingly frequent and intense flooding will make many aspects of daily life difficult to sustain. In particular, movement around the community will be challenging, homes will often be inundated, unhealthy and untenable, and the provision of basic services problematic.

What do we do about it?

While our hearts and minds continue to be occupied by the pandemic, threats from climate change to our ongoing standard of living, or even future viability on this planet, haven’t slowed. We can pretend to ignore what is happening and what is increasingly unstoppable, or we can proactively manage the increasing threat.

Some coastal communities, such as in Melbourne’s bayside suburbs, may experience flooding, even if they never have before.

Thankfully, approaches to adapting the built and natural environment to sea-level rise are increasingly being applied around the world. Many major cities have already embarked on major coastal adaptation programs – think London, New York, Rotterdam, and our own Gold Coast.

However, the uptake continues to lag behind the threat. And one of the big challenges is to incentivise coastal adaptation without overly impacting private property rights.

Read more:
For flood-prone cities, seawalls raise as many questions as they answer

Perhaps the best approach to learning to live with water is led by the Netherlands. Rather than relocating entire communities or constructing large barriers like sea walls, this nation is finding ways to reduce the overall impact of flooding. This includes more resilient building design or reducing urban development in specific flood retention basins. This means flooding can occur without damaging infrastructure.

There are lessons here. Australia’s adaptation discussions have often focused on finding the least worst choice between constructing large seawalls or moving entire communities — neither of which are often palatable. This leads to inaction, as both options aren’t often politically acceptable.

The seas are inexorably creeping higher and higher. Once thought to be a problem for our grandchildren, it is becoming increasingly evident this is a challenge for the here and now. The recently released research confirms this conclusion.

Read more:
King tides and rising seas are predictable, and we’re not doing enough about it

The Conversation

Mark Gibbs, Principal Engineer: Reef Restoration, Australian Institute of Marine Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.